Artistic Haven Louisa Arts Center, once a school, to dedicate new Cooke-Haley Theater Saving historic school, putting it to new uses, required a communitywide effort.

The Free Lance-Star
Pat Wilson 8/9/2008


The former school’s auditorium (left) was gutted prior to renovations. For the Louisa Downtown Development Corp. board of directors, formed in 2004, the task seemed almost overwhelming, but enthusiasm outweighed obstacles. An expanded town hall and a new cultural center were the objectives, although the site was a century-old school that had fallen into disrepair. (Photo by Pat Wilson)


Through the vision of former Mayor Charles Rosson, the Fredericksburg Avenue property had been purchased in 2002, with the primary consideration to move the town hall from its cramped quarters on Main Street. The mayor also saw the school auditorium’s potential for conversion into a state-of-the-art theater.

The LDDC board expanded this concept into an arts center, including a venue for live performances, along with projection capabilities, art classrooms and an exhibition gallery.

Next weekend, the hard working board will witness a major completion of its efforts–the grand opening of the Cooke-Haley Theater in the Louisa Arts Center. This accomplishment follows last summer’s dedication of the Purcell Gallery in an annex, which was built to serve both as the town hall’s main entrance and the center’s reception and exhibition space.

“On Saturday, August 16, the arts center will be open free to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” said Peggy Weston, director. “We will have on-stage entertainment, including Lane and Malloy, who play while Buster Keaton films are projected behind them. The Dixie Power Trio, the local Shelton Brothers [gospel] and the Louisa Community Chorale [Broadway hits] will also perform.”

Tours of the school, food concessions and additional entertainment will fill the day. A ticketed evening concert by the Fat Ammons Band will highlight classics, beach, rock and pop hits.

“We invite everyone to come and see what has been accomplished,” said Weston. The grand opening will be preceded on Friday evening by an invitation-only program featuring the sounds of Steve Bassett. Major sponsors will join the board in recognizing the William A. Cooke Foundation for its $400,000 pledge, which allowed the theater to become a reality.

The generosity of the Louisa County Board of Supervisors and a 2005 appropriation from the General Assembly, arranged by Sen. R. Edward “Edd” Houck and Del. Bill Janis, initiated the LDDC’s capital campaign. Generous corporate donations and the securing of a general obligation bond, backed by the Louisa Town Council, were supplemented by smaller donors who purchased bricks for the patio or seats for the theater. The LDDC sponsored an ice cream social, where former students returned to their alma mater; a hard-hat tour to show off progress on the restorations; and a picnic to encourage additional contributions. Gala opening nights for the art exhibits and small intimate concerts in the Purcell Gallery often included a glimpse into the old auditorium to see “how things were going.”

“Although our construction is complete, we still need sponsors and donors to help bear the expenses of performances and maintenance,” LDDC secretary Pat Purcell said.

In restoring the theater, the LDDC enlisted the expertise of J. Larkin Brown, the Glen Allen Performing Arts Center’s director. His knowledge, the dedication of Town Manager Brian Marks and the plans of contractor Howard Loudin, along with the desire to preserve a taste of the original facility, have resulted in a 200-seat venue with ample stage area, a mezzanine-level technical booth and backstage amenities for performers. (Photo by Pat Wilson)

“The facility is completely [Americans with Disabilities Act]-approved, and the two dressing rooms and green room afford performers the opportunity to prepare and relax,” Weston said. “A rear loading dock gives easy access.”

The technical booth has state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, along with projection equipment. The 720-square-foot stage features a grand piano.

“The stage was enlarged beyond the proscenium arch and a thrust was built out into the audience,” explained Weston. Burgundy curtains match the 200 cushion seats, which are well-spaced on the slanting auditorium floor.

“We had to replace interior walls and the ceiling for acoustic concerns,” Purcell said. “We salvaged the tin molding, side doors leading backstage and some of the original stage’s floorboards.”

The William A. Cooke Foundation chose two prominent Louisa men in naming the theater.

Cooke, who was educated in Louisa schools, practiced law in the county, after passing the bar exam at the minimum eligible age of 21 in 1924. A decade later, he would establish a successful real estate business. Active in several civic organizations, Cooke also served two terms as town mayor and was a substitute general district court judge. The foundation was formed in 2001 following his death.
Littleberry J. Haley, Cooke’s grandfather, was superintendent of schools for 14 years; the original high school on Elm Avenue was named in his honor. Haley was ordained a Baptist minister in 1856, and was elected to the House of Delegates in 1905.

“It is great to preserve a piece of history and, at the same time, build something wonderful and useful for the future,” said Wallace Tingler, foundation president and board chairman.

Weston selected the theme “Celebrating American Music” for the center’s 2008 season. Scheduled performers include the contemporary sounds of Robert Jospe and Inner Rhythm; the Virginia Opera performing Broadway selections; the traditional country music of Robin and Linda Williams; and the Virginia Handbell Consort.

The theater has already been used for functions, including a private piano recital, a community chorus performance and a silent auction. Details about ordering tickets or renting the facility, which has an ABC license and catering kitchen, are available at or by calling 540/967-2200.

For the past year, local artists have had a venue to display their talents, including paintings in various media, stoneware, mosaics and quilts in the Purcell Gallery, off the center’s foyer.

Themes such as “Textiles and Terracotta,” “Distinctively Louisa” and “Inside/Outside” have given painters, sculptors and craftsmen the opportunity to show and sell their work.

Ginna Cullen, a local artist and instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, chairs the exhibit committee. For each show, more than 100 pieces were submitted and approximately 40 were selected.

The concept behind the gallery is to give artists a place to showcase their talent, currently with no fee charged. Each is encouraged to offer the work for sale, and the gallery has had some success with that aspect.

“We ask experts in the field to curate the shows, and they select the works that best fit the particular theme,” Cullen said. “A lot of our artists are former county art students, professional photographers or art teachers, but many send work from other locales.”

“Blooming Art” is the theme of the current exhibit, on view until August 22.

“The next show, opening later that month, is ‘It’s All in Black and White,’ and Kurt Godwin, who has his master’s in fine arts from VCU, is curator,” said Cullen, who credits the county’s art teachers with invaluable help in arranging the shows and hanging the artwork.

An invitation-only show for VCU Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies instructors will fill the gallery in late fall. “Young at Art,” featuring artists ages 5 through 12 will complete the 2008 schedule. 2009 will open with an “Anything Elvis” theme.

Over the past year, the gallery has been the site of intimate concerts and vocal presentations. Since it is adja-cent to a catering kitchen, the space is rented for special occasions, such as family reunions, wedding receptions and other private or fund-raising gatherings.

The gallery is named for two prominent 20th-century Louisa families. The late Judge Harold Hidmore Purcell and his wife, Virginia Omohundro, and the late John Gerald Purcell and his wife, Mary McIntosh, are honored by their sons, Harold Walton Purcell and John Jerl Purcell, respectively. Their donation of $130,000 allowed construction of the open space.

“It is our hope that this will further enhance the quality of life and cultural enhancement that the citizens of Louisa County so greatly deserve,” Harold Purcell said when pledging the donation.

John Jerl Purcell added, “This is a good way to give back to the community that has supported me and my family.”

The Purcell Gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., in addition to times that coincide with performances in the theater. More information on shows and an application to exhibit is available at

Space has been designated for two second-floor art classrooms over the town hall offices. Weston is arranging fall programs for all ages and in various media, depending on the interests of the participants.

“We are considering times during the day, in the evenings and on Saturdays,” she said. “In having classes, called Kidz Quest, we want to synthesize children to the fact that there is art all around them.”

An LDDC education committee anticipates working closely with the county’s art program. The goal is to integrate the arts center and its offerings to further expose children to the creative world.

Pat Wilson of Louisa County is a freelance writer. E-mail her in care of Email:

Local businessmen contributed funds to construct the 1907 stone high school building on 2.8 acres on Fredericksburg Avenue in the town of Louisa. Stone for the block walls was quarried at a site north of the town; a slate roof with cupola capped the structure. A rear auditorium and more second-floor space were added 10 years later.

In 1924, a fire gutted the school, which was rebuilt within a year using the Virginia Literary Fund, a first for the state. High school students studied in four second-floor classrooms; elementary pupils were housed on the main level. Steam from a coal furnace provided heat, and a basement cafeteria and bathrooms were added.

Porter Whitlock, whose grandfather Robert Leigh was the contractor, attended the school in the 1920s. When contributing to the restoration, Whitlock recalled his high school years, “We had Latin, algebra, geometry, history, home economics, agriculture and English grammar and literature classes With four teachers, our class sizes were about 30, and discipline was instilled at home.”

When county high schools were consolidated in 1940, the building became Louisa Elementary School. A cinder-block annex, providing a cafeteria and more classrooms, was built on the northeast side in the 1950s. For 47 years, students in kindergarten through seventh grade would be educated there.

Mary Jane Clarke holds fond memories of the school where, for 20 years, she taught and was later principal, until 1987–when the county’s elementary schools were consolidated.

“We were truly a family. When I was principal, I knew every child in the building, what bus they rode and where they lived,” she said. “I’d even taught some of their parents. There was also a close bond among the staff.”

Former students recall playing basketball on the gravel playground, climbing out a second-story window and down the metal fire escape during drills, receiving slaps on the hand from a ruler for misbehaving, or receiving tender care from school secretary Frances Smith, who manned the tiny “infirmary.”

Bill Pettit, who lived next door, purchased the school and its ballfield when the county sold the property.

The owner of an adjacent local car dealership left the structure vacant, using it mainly for storage. After the businessman announced his intention to retire to Florida, former Mayor Charles Rosson approached Pettit.

The town had outgrown its quarters on Main Street, and was considering an expansion. Rosson saw an alternative, along with an opportunity to save a historic structure. Pettit was selling the school, ballfield and his home, totaling 12.4 acres.

The Louisa Town Council considered restoring the building, but worried about the cost of repairing a leaking roof, fallen ceiling tiles, asbestos and lead-paint contamination, cracked walls, and floors littered with car parts.

“I was willing to come on board when Charles mentioned restoring the auditorium into a theater,” said Pam Stone, a council member. “A cultural center had always been a missing piece in our county.”

This led Clarke to make a conflicting decision, since she was also the town’s vice mayor and had to balance nostalgia with practicality. “The money planned for the current town hall would make a deposit on the school restoration,” she reasoned.

In 2002, the council voted to purchase the landmark. Moving town hall allowed the police force to relocate from its cramped one-room station and operate from the Main Street building. The school’s auditorium had been converted into classrooms, but now it might return to its initial use.

Loudin Building Services renovated the 2,200-square-foot first floor, beginning in early 2005. The next summer, the town government moved into spacious offices, adequate council chambers and a conference room. The contractor was diligent in salvaging as many historic features as possible.

The challenge of creating the arts center was left to the Louisa Downtown Development Corp.

Stone and Clarke spearheaded the formation of the not-for-profit group and recruited community members to serve on the fundraising board, which would oversee the center’s renovation, construction and operation.

Town Manager Brian Marks was instrumental in all phases of the project. “He was the linchpin in its success,” said Stone. Clarke added, “His attention to detail, foresight with options were invaluable.”

When contributions increased and several large pledges were received, a new entrance on the northeast side of the school, featuring a gallery and catering kitchen, was completed last year.

The final phase of the project, the renovated theater, was begun in 2007, and its reality will be celebrated next weekend.

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16, the Louisa Arts Center invites the public to the dedication of its new theater, with performances by four musical groups. More:

Date published: 8/9/2008